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Natural Disasters in Costa Rica: How to Be Prepared

Are you worried about natural disasters in Costa Rica during your vacation?

We completely understand!

Costa Rica is situated directly on a fault line. Plus the country is located on the Caribbean Sea. That means that it can be a prime destination for natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tropical storms.

I will admit, even after living in this country for several years, I am still not used to natural disasters. The earthquakes still completely freak me out. However, I have had a lot of experience on how to prepare for natural disasters and what to do when they occur.

We created this guide of what to do during natural disasters in Costa Rica to help you all be prepared, just in case!

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The Geography of Costa Rica

Costa Rica is located directly on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Specifically, it is on the boundary where the Cocos Plate goes beneath the Caribbean Plate. This boundary is called a subduction zone, and it’s a major fault line.

When parts of the Earth’s crust move and grind against each other at this fault line, it can lead to powerful earthquakes. Additionally, the melting of the descending oceanic plate creates magma, which can rise to the surface and result in the formation of volcanoes.

This is why Costa Rica is home to several active volcanoes and experiences frequent seismic activity.

Possible Natural Disasters in Costa Rica

Here are the natural disasters that you might be confronted with during your trip to Costa Rica.

Earthquakes

Earthquakes are pretty common here in Costa Rica. They seem to usually come around the change of seasons (rainy season to dry season, dry season to rainy season).

Fortunately, most buildings in Costa Rica are built with earthquakes in mind.

When an earthquake occurs I swear you can kind of hear it before. Thomas never seems to hear it, but I can usually tell him a few seconds before one happens. There is like this vibration rumbling noise that starts.

Then, the ground will start shaking.

Natural Disasters in Costa Rica: How to Be Prepared

Usually, the earthquakes in Costa Rica are only a few seconds long. But, even a few seconds of the earth-shaking can be absolutely terrifying.

What to Do During an Earthquake

During an earthquake, your first reaction might be to flee, but in actuality, you should stay where you are.

The best thing to do if you are inside is to get in a door frame or crawl under a stable surface like a table.

In most instances, the dangerous part of earthquakes is going to be things falling on you. By being in a stable doorframe or under another stable surface you are less likely to get hit by falling objects.

What to Do After an Earthquake

The thing with earthquakes is that they usually aren’t over when the shaking stops. Sometimes there are aftershocks and they can be worse than the first shaking.

So, continue to monitor the situation and stay in a safe area.

Costa Rica Volcanic Eruptions

arenal volcano view sunny day

There are currently five active volcanoes in Costa Rica. These are; Poas Volcano, Turrialba Volcano, Rincon de la Vieja Volcano, Arenal Volcano, and Irazu Volcano.

However, only three of these volcanoes have erupted in the past few years. These are Poas Volcano, Rincon de la Vieja Volcano, and Turrialba Volcano.

Arenal Volcano last erupted in 2010 and Irazu last erupted in 1994.

Two of these (Poas and Turrialba) are located close to the capital San Jose. The other active volcano is Rincon de la Vieja in Guanacaste near the Liberia Airport.

There have not been any recent major eruptions, but all three are frequently spewing ash. The cover picture of this article is of Turrialba.

At many places near these volcanos, you will be asked to back in your car at parking lots so if needed you can easily hop in your car and evacuate.

What to Do If a Volcano Erupts

If a volcano erupts while you are at the top of it, your goal is to get as far away from it as fast as possible. This is why you will often be asked to back into parking spaces near any of the volcanoes in Costa Rica.

If you’re indoors, stay there. Ash from volcanic eruptions can cause respiratory problems, especially for people with asthma and other lung conditions. Close all windows, doors, and vents to prevent ash from entering.

Lahars, which are mudflows or landslides from a volcano, can occur during an eruption. These flow down valleys and river channels, so avoid these areas.

If you must go outside or if you’re in an area with volcanic ash, wear a mask to protect your lungs and goggles to protect your eyes. Use a fine dust mask or a cloth to cover your nose and mouth.

Our Experience with Volcanoes in Costa Rica

The first year we lived here there was constant eruption of the Turialbe volcano. We lived about an hour drive away from the volcano.

For several months we had almost constant ash covering our garden. We had to keep the windows closed and had to be very careful when we went outside.

We had a friend who was working at a hospital at that time and she said a lot of people came in with respiratory-related problems due to the ash.

Tropical Storms and Hurricanes

costa rica hurricane

In the past, this wasn’t something you really had to worry about, but in recent years there have been more storm threats.

In 2016 Costa Rica got hit by Hurricane Otto, the country’s first-ever real hurricane.

In 2017 there was Tropical Storm Nate.

Costa Rica is designed to handle a lot of rain, but these two storms brought flooding, landslides, downed trees etc.

Although hurricanes and tropical storms are rare, there are often heavy rainstorms with thunder and lightning during the rainy season.

These storms can be scary. Where we live in San Jose it is not unusual to hear car alarms going off all down the street because of the lightning strikes. It is also normal to lose power.

Check out our guide to hurricanes in Costa Rica for more info on staying protected.

Tsunami’s in Costa Rica

After an earthquake near the coast or in the ocean, there is usually a tidal wave warning put into place.

In Costa Rica, there has never been a significant tsunami recorded. From what I read on World Data, there have been 5 recorded tsunamis since 1950. Three people died due to a tsunami in 1991.

So, although the chances of there being a tsunami are extremely low, it is still not something you should take lightly.

It is best to get away from the coast and seek higher ground.

Landslides in Costa Rica

During the rainy season there can be some heavy rains that result in landslides. Also, these landslides can occur after earthquakes.

Be careful while driving or walking.

Flooding in Costa Rica

During a heavy rainstorm flash flooding can occur. I’m kind of terrified of flash floods because they can be really bad here.

A few years ago a couple from Boston was on their honeymoon in Costa Rica near Dominical. There was a flash flood and they drove over a small bridge that got swept out while they were driving. I believe the woman survived but the man drowned.

It has really haunted me since then.

If you are in or near a river and see the color suddenly change to be slightly murky, that is a sign a flash flood could be coming.

Also, if you start seeing branches, leaves, or other debris flowing in rivers or streams, it’s a sign that water levels are rising upstream.

Pre-Planning for Natural Disasters in Costa Rica

rainy costa rica

Although you never know what is going to happen, there are a few steps you can take before your travels to prepare yourself.

Register with STEP

If you are a US citizen, you should definitely register with STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) before traveling.

This allows the US government to notify you regarding potential security threats in the area you are visiting, get in contact with you regarding natural disasters and gives family and friends a way to contact you in the case of emergencies.

I always register with STEP before I travel anywhere and definitely feel a little safer knowing that the local embassy knows I’m in that country in case of disaster.

They actually do contact you as well. I was in Hamburg, Germany once when some riots were going on and I got an email from the US government notifying me of areas to avoid.

Know the Emergency Numbers

Did you know that different countries have different emergency numbers? Maybe I’m the only idiot who didn’t realize this when I first traveled abroad.

Anyway, in Costa Rica the emergency number is the same as the US, 9-1-1. In an emergency, you can call 9-1-1 and someone will help you out.

Purchase Travel Insurance

I know buying travel insurance is an added expense to your trip that you probably don’t want to take on, but it is worth it.

You really never know what is going to happen.

Besides regular emergencies, you have to remember you are in a foreign country which your body is not used to.

You can read our full post about travel insurance and the time I had a scary allergic reaction right after moving to Costa Rica, here.

Get a travel insurance quote from Heymondo

Photocopy Your Passport

Please please bring at least one color copy of your passport with you while traveling in Costa Rica.

Keep this copy in a safe spot separate from your passport.

It is good to have a separate copy of your passport because if something happens and you need to leave suddenly you will at least hopefully have the copy or your original passport with you.

Also, if the original gets lost or stolen you will have a backup to show the embassy. This helps with getting an expedited temporary passport.

How to Prepare While in Costa Rica

rainy beach

Know Where You Are Staying

Because there are no addresses in Costa Rica you can’t just state the address you are at if you need to call the police.

Instead, it is best to know the name of the place you are.

If you are on the street, you will need to try to explain where you are using landmarks. If you are stuck, ask somebody nearby for help.

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

It’s always good to keep an eye out in any situation. Sometimes you may be the first person to notice that something is a bit “off” with the environment around you.

Keep Your Cell Phone Charged

You always want the option of being able to call for help during natural disasters in Costa Rica. It is really important to keep your phone charged and topped up with minutes.

We have a portable charger that is great for keeping your phone charged for a lengthy amount of time.

Check out the Complete Costa Rica Packing List for all the Essentials You Need in Your Suitcase (and on that subject….we suggest a large backpack instead of suitcase)

Always Have a Source of GPS

Having a source of GPS is important for if you get stranded somewhere. I suggest downloading offline Google Maps for all of Costa Rica before your trip.

It is free and takes a few minutes to do.

That way, if the power goes out and cell phone service goes down you will still be able to get around.

What to Do During a Natural Disaster in Costa Rica

Here is what you should do while in Costa Rica if a natural disaster occurs.

Check Facebook Pages

Thomas recently found two great pages on Facebook for staying up to date on road conditions and natural disasters in the country.

The first page is called OVSICORI-UNA. This page will keep you up to date on all seismic activity in the area.

The other page is MOPT. This page is run by the Ministry of Public Works. This will help you stay aware of all current road conditions.

State that You Don’t Speak Spanish

If you are in a high-stress situation it is important to state that your Spanish is not the best (unless it is great). This way you can hopefully find someone who speaks English that can help you to stay up to date with what is going on.

Pro Tip: The free Google Translate app now has an offline feature. You can download Spanish so you can easily translate anything even without cell service.

Also, Google Translate has a feature you can talk into and it will translate into Spanish speech.

This is so helpful if you are trying to verbally communicate with someone.

Contact Your Embassy

Contact the embassy in Costa Rica of whichever country you are a citizen of.

The embassy can direct you to nearby shelters, notify your family that you are safe, help you get to a hospital etc.

If you are a US citizen, you can find the embassy’s contact info here.

Mark Yourself Safe on Facebook or Whatsapp

On Facebook, you can mark yourself safe after crises. This is great because all of your family and friends can see that you are OK without you having to contact each one individually.

You can find out more about how to do it here.

Notify Your Loved Ones

If you have the possibility, it is best to notify your family as soon as you can that you are OK.

I like to have one person to contact who can then pass the message on to the rest of my family.

That way I can work on resolving whatever situation I am in and do not have to worry about contacting every person individually.

Conclusion: Natural Disasters in Costa Rica

OK, I hope I haven’t completely scared you off from visiting Costa Rica. The chances of you experiencing any devastating natural disasters in Costa Rica are pretty slim.

You also have to remember that this is the normal way of life for people here and they survive just fine.

If you have any questions about natural disasters in Costa Rica just leave them in the comment section below and we will be happy to help you out.

WAS THIS GUIDE TO NATURAL DISASTERS IN COSTA RICA HELPFUL?

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Costa Rica Travel Details: What You Need to Know

🚗 Should I rent a car in Costa Rica?

Having a rental car will give you the most flexibility when traveling in Costa Rica. This will also allow you to take fun day trips on your own.

🏄🏽 How can I book things to do?

We find that Viator tends to have the most comprehensive selection of activities with secure booking and good cancellation policies.

🍍 I’m overwhelmed with planning. Can you help?

Of course! I suggest joining our Facebook group for specific questions and head to our Start Here Page to get started planning.

✈️ What is the best way to book a flight?

Usually, we have the best luck finding great prices with Skyscanner. Check for flights to both San Jose Airport (SJO) and Liberia Airport (LIR).

🛏️ What is the best way to book my Costa Rica hotels?

We highly suggest Booking.com for hotel bookings and typically use VRBO for Costa Rica vacation rentals.

🗣️What is the main language in Costa Rica?

The main language in Costa Rica is Spanish. Most people working in tourism speak at least some English.

💰 What is the currency in Costa Rica?

The currency used in Costa Rica is the Costa Rican colón (CRC). However, the US dollar is widely accepted in most tourist areas

📞 What is the best way to stay connected?

An eSIM from Airalo is the easiest way to get 4G data while traveling in Costa Rica.

🌴 Is Costa Rica safe?

Generally, Costa Rica is considered safe for tourists. However, like any travel destination, it’s best to use caution and be aware of your surroundings.

🛂 Do you need a passport to go to Costa Rica?

Yes, Costa Rica is its own country. You will need a passport to visit.

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